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Issue #1703      September 23, 2015

UN Sustainable Development Goals at risk

Ahead of the UN special summit, industrialised nations are at risk of missing the new Sustainable Development Goals:

“The Millennium Development Goals have led to tangible progress in many developing countries. Once adopted, the United Nations’ new global Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 will additionally require industrialised countries to implement these standards for the first time. But the world’s first comprehensive stocktaking shows that most industrialised nations are a long way from serving as role models for sustainable development.”

Most industrialised countries in the OECD are not yet ready for the international community’s new sustainability pledge. Many are nowhere near achieving the global policy objectives that are to be adopted by the heads of state or government at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit this month. Indeed, there is the danger that the targets for many indicators will be missed entirely. The greatest deficits of the industrialised nations lie in their less-than-sustainable production and consumption behaviour. In addition, in many cases their economic systems also exacerbate the trend toward social inequality.

Dr Christian Kroll, head of the Bertelsmann Stiftung study.

This is the result of a comparative study of all 34 OECD states conducted by Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung on the basis of 34 indicators for the 17 future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The study is the first one in the world to systematically investigate the present status of each of these countries, both individually and in comparison with one another. This snapshot additionally identifies countries that can serve as role models with regard to particular Sustainable Development Goals, while also pointing out where substantial deficits still exist. Thus the study provides a blueprint for the attainment of the SDGs in the next 15 years.

According to the study, the countries best positioned to achieve the new UN goals are the four Scandinavian nations Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, with Switzerland following in fifth place. The nations with the lowest ranking are the USA, Greece, Chile, Hungary, Turkey, and Mexico.

Australia is in the middle

Australia is 18th (out of 34) in the overall ranking, thereby placing it among the mid-tier countries. Its performance varies considerably in terms of the individual goals. For example, the country down under numbers among the top five for seven of the 34 indicators, but is among the bottom third for 11 indicators.

One positive area is life expectancy. On average, Australians can expect to live 73 years in full health, making it one of the top performers among its peers. The country is also a leader when it comes to the quality of life in its cities, with considerable domestic space, at 2.3 rooms per person, and particulate matter air pollution significantly below WHO safety thresholds. Another strength is its relatively low level of agricultural pollution.

When it comes to the sustainability of consumption and production patterns, the picture is less favourable. At 47 tons per capita, Australia has the worst rate of domestic material consumption. At 647 kilograms per capita, it ranks 30th in terms of municipal waste. When it comes to combating climate change there is also plenty of room for improvement, since the country places next to last in terms of both greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions.

Aart De Geus, Chairman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, puts it in clear terms: “Our investigation is the first stress test for the industrialised countries with respect to the new targets. We in the rich nations, with our growing social inequality and wasteful use of resources, can no longer present ourselves as the world’s teachers.

“We’re hardly entitled to prescribe a course of development to the emerging countries. Rather, the analysis shows us where we, too, have to do our homework. And it shows us where the industrialised states are already at risk of missing the new Sustainable Development Goals.”

Improvement potentials

The investigation further reveals major differences between the individual countries with respect to various goals. Social inequality, especially, has now reached record levels in industrialised nations and continues to rise. In 23 OECD states, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population now earns at least as much as the poorest 40 percent. The earnings of the richest 10 percent in the USA are even 1.7 times as great as those of the poorest 40 percent and in Chile they are 3.3 times as great. In countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Norway, the Czech Republic and Denmark, income is considerably less concentrated, proving that inequality is not an inevitable development.

Great differences are also apparent in, for example, environmental pollution. Countries like Australia, Canada, Poland, and Mexico discharge over six times as much carbon dioxide per unit of economic output as does Sweden or Norway. The share of renewable energy also varies considerably between countries. South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands use less than 4 percent of renewable energies. By contrast, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have already achieved a share of over 47 percent, which they are steadily expanding without hindering economic growth.

In his foreword to the study, Kofi Annan, the spiritual father of the Millennium Development Goals, calls for greater efforts on the part of the world’s wealthy countries: “I am thankful to the Bertelsmann Stiftung for highlighting this issue in such elaborate detail. This study will hopefully spark reform debates on sustainability and social justice in many high-income countries. We owe it to our planet and its people.”

According to Dr Christian Kroll, who headed the Bertelsmann Stiftung study, these great disparities point out the respective nations’ potential for making substantial advances by 2030: “If you take the new UN Sustainable Development Goals as the standard, all countries are now developing countries. But our comparative study also shows the best examples for, and pioneers in, bringing economic, social, and ecological progress in line with each other.” Kroll continues: “Given that the developing nations were able to cut the infant mortality rate in half with the help of the Millennium Development Goals, we should be able to demand that the industrialised countries make their own economic models more socially just and sustainable with the help of the new UN targets.”

About the study

On the occasion of the UN special summit in New York (September 25–27, 2015), the Bertelsmann Stiftung presents the world’s first comparative study of the new global Sustainable Development Goals, which, unlike the Millennium Development Goals, set standards not only for emerging and developing countries, but also for the industrialised nations.

Assistance in the conception and selection of the indicators used in the study came from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN), an association of research institutes formed to support the new UN objectives. These highly relevant indicators convey important information on significant spheres of life. They draw in part on the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Sustainable Governance Indicators,” a cooperative international project involving around 100 scientists on the measurement of the future viability of industrialised states (

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